Cuban Artists at CCE Miami Explore Crumbling Havana Through Video

For Cuban art critic Dennys Matos, inspiration for his new video art show struck from the unlikeliest of sources: a treatise by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a full-fledged Nazi.

It wasn't Heidegger's loathsome politics that snagged Matos, though, but how the philosopher's famous "question of being" tried to make sense of the rubble his Allies had made of his vanquished fatherland.

Matos drew a connection to his own homeland, where Cuban artists contemplate existence in a nation left scarred by its own government. His "Occupying, Building, Thinking" explores life under Fidel Castro through the work of 21 Cuban artists, the bulk of whom still live in Havana.

At Centro Cultural Español Miami (CCEM), the short films, ranging from 30 seconds to 13 minutes in length, offer disparate views of Cuba's revolutionary legacy: the crushing poverty, the drama of citizens fleeing oppression, and Castro's failure to make a people's utopia.

Although Matos succeeds in combining three generations of Cuban artists in a medium often scarce in Havana because of technological shortages under the U.S. embargo, his CCEM show poses some significant problems for viewers.

The main failure is his decision to loop all the videos together on a single DVD projected in a darkened film video room rather than individually on separate monitors. Viewers are forced to sit through more than an hourlong screening to watch the whole program. That's a major mistake, considering that the majority of Miami's gallery public often has limited time for art outings.

Couple that snafu with the schedule at CCEM, which operates on bankers' hours during the week and is open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, and it's a miracle they can drum up any traffic for this exhibition.

But Matos insists that spooling the videos together gives his subject more impact, because he chose to organize the works into three separate segments — each mirroring a word in the exhibit's title.

Also disappointing is a crude display of religious artifacts and political propaganda arranged in a foyer that opens onto the black-curtained screening room. A CCEM assistant explained it's "supposed to resemble a Cuban home's parlor."

The jarring area includes black-and-white photos of Castro and Che Guevara in gold rococo frames, a bust of Marie Antoinette crowned by a Russian bearskin hat, large statues of Santa Barbara with broken arms and Saint Lazarus missing a leg. And completing the sinister tableau: a bright-red tapestry with Che's mug, exhorting, "Onto victory always!"

Still, if visitors make it past the foyer and catch the full screening, they'll be rewarded with some worthy takes on Cuban society.

The first video in the "Occupying" segment is Jairo Alfonso's Walk With My Grandfather Juan, which he created as a tribute to his abuelo. The comical three-minute video, shot in stop-motion animation, depicts a cheap wooden sandal, with a burning white candle atop it, dragging a tail of strung-together dominoes.

It begins with a blaring song by Cuban trova group Trio Matamoros and follows the sandal winding like a snake through a dilapidated country house and past a rural factory until it ends up spinning atop a rotting truck tire.

"He created it as a nostalgic remembrance of his grandfather, who lived in a town I believe is called Aguacate," Matos says. "It includes iconography of poverty and of marginalized areas of Cuba."

Another hilarious video in this section highlights the absurdity of navigating Cuba's crumbling infrastructure. Titled Reflections of a Lake on the Path, Cuban collective Luis o Miguel's 2007 minute-and-a-half video opens with the lulling sound of generic new-age music as the camera catches up to golden carp in what appears to be a scum-covered pond.

As the fish swim idly in circles, making one wonder how they can survive in such pollution, the camera suddenly pulls away to capture a speeding car crushing the animals in what turns out to be their street-pothole aquarium on a busy Havana road.

Three other memorable works from the segment, running about five minutes each, are Renier Quer's Bunker, Marianela Orozco's Hipnosis, and Antuan Rodriguez's Left or Right.

In the first, a homeless man has created a dwelling for himself in the bowels of an unidentified Cuban national monument in a spot the size of a small walk-in closet, where government officials have adopted him as a mascot and give him food and clothing.

The second offers a split-screen view of an elderly woman vigilantly watching a filthy, garbage-strewn street as passersby whistle at each other. The scene echoes the island's vast network of paid government watchdogs — the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution — who are charged with ratting on neighbors' anti-government activities.

For his part, Miami's Rodriguez strung up a bunch of heavy red punching bags with the mugs of Chávez, Castro, George Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other political figures under an Overtown overpass where dozens of homeless men live. Shirtless men take turns wailing at the political figures they would love to throttle for their failed policies. The highlight comes when a guy wearing a Washington Wizards tank top dry-humps the punching bag before planting a smooch on Hillary's lips.

In the "Building" section of the show, many films riff on the deterioration of Cuba's structures, historic or otherwise, and often feature ordinary people trying to put cheerful faces on their corroded homes by using colorful paint and dirt-and-spit spackle.

For I No Longer Want to See My Neighbors, filmed in black-and-white and scored with a tune that could be out of a Tennessee Williams play, Carlos Garaicoa built a concrete-block wall in his dwelling, closing him off from those next door. He then superimposed images of walls in Ramallah, Tijuana, Berlin, and China to reflect the xenophobia that totalitarian regimes encourage against those who don't share their ideology.

In the last section, "Thinking," Luis Gomez's 1181 appropriates Fritz Lang's movie classic Metropolis, about a futuristic dystopia. The original film was about workers unwilling to conform and was shot during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. But this lengthiest video in the show comes across as an intellectual conceit that is long-winded and boring.

It does allude to the mass dehumanization in totalitarian societies such as Cuba, where the individual is forced to sacrifice free will to the collective's goals. As Cuba continues collapsing around its residents, the government's response is not unlike a "drunken ventriloquist reciting the future of an already-dead and untimely communism," Matos says.

The films in "Occupying, Building, Thinking" break no new ground in the art form and could have been shown individually for a livelier and more engaging presentation, but given some patience, they deliver Matos's thesis with some power.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus

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